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Hirak Raja, Happiness, And Hunger!

The least we can do as civil society is to have a serious debate on the state of hunger and happiness in the country.

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One of the last doyens of the Indian cultural renaissance of the 1960s, Soumitra Chatterjee bid us goodbye on the 15th of November this year. Amongst the 14 roles he played for Satyajit Ray, one was that of a schoolteacher called Udayan Pandit in the 1980 film “Hirak Rajar Deshe” [In the Land of the Diamond King]. 

The role was a supporting one but crucial enough as the “conscience” of the kingdom ruled by a despotic megalomaniac king. Udayan has been teaching his students that education will drive away hunger and bring happiness even to the poorest enslaved in the diamond mines. Always a threat to the royal plan to brainwash every citizen, it is decided to demolish the only school in the kingdom. Hirak Raja announces in his court, “Ora joto beshi porey, toto beshi jaane, toto kom maane” which translates as, “The more they read, the more they know, and the less they bow.” The school is demolished and Udayan becomes a rebel in hiding, waiting for the right time to overthrow the despot. The education minister had joked, “Lekha pora kore jei, onahaare morey shei. Jaanaar kono shesh naai, jaanaar cheshta britha tai” [The ones who study die of starvation. There is no end to learning so it is pointless to try.]

40 years after this dystopian science-fiction dark comedy was released under the garb of a children’s film, Udayan Pandit’s teachings are still relevant. Education. No hunger. Happiness. Freedom. These are the four values that he wanted to instill in every young child in the kingdom. I would have been curious about how Ray would have crafted his movie if planned in today’s India. How would his Udayan Pandit have reacted to two global reports released this year, one each on happiness and hunger? They are the World Happiness Report and the Global Hunger Index.

In March 2020 the World Happiness Report was released by the UN Sustainable Solutions Network. This index measures the level of happiness of the citizens of 156 countries across various parameters with the focus of the 8th edition of the report on the social, urban, and natural environment. The data used for ranking countries comes from multiple sources like the Gallup World Poll and World Values Survey. People from each country rank their levels of happiness across various factors on a statistical model called a Cantril Ladder. The methodology is the same for every country. The parameters are the same. For example, the 6 factors considered for the 2020 report under Social Environment are – GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and perceptions of corruption. Each factor measures critical aspects like inequality and income security under ‘GDP per capita’. The time period of the study was 2017-2019.

India stands 144th out of 156 countries!

Hemmed in by Haiti and Lesotho above and Malawi and Yemen below.

How do some others perform?

If we were to looks at BRICS, Brazil is at 32, Russia at 73, China at 94 and South Africa at 109.

If we are to look at the sub-continent, Pakistan is at 66, Nepal at 92, Bangladesh at 107 and Sri Lanka at 130. Only Afghanistan follows us at 153.

From the 2019 to the 2020 report itself we have dropped by 4 ranks.

As if the abysmal absolute ranking is not enough, the change calculated from the period of 2008-2012 to 2017-2019 is more worrysome!

The Indian happiness index has dropped by 1.21 points over this period. Hemmed in by Zimbabwe and Zambia. In the sub-continent, Bangladesh has dropped marginally by 0.04 points while the others have all improved.

Even in the Urban-Rural Happiness Differentials, we score pretty badly when it comes to happiness in rural India.

Finally, when the correlation between the Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs] and Subjective Well-Being [SWB] is plotted vis-à-vis other countries, we break the pattern [with a few other countries] of a relatively high SDG score implying a proportionally high SWB score. The chart below, from the report shows how we are away from the normal pattern.

This report was hardly talked of in Indian media. Just a few covered it and larger pressures made them cover up soon. The powers that be could wave it off as being yet another “western” conspiracy that deliberately wishes to berate India and the incredible progress we have been making over the last 5 odd years. After all, nationalistic spirits were on a high and a collective sense of pride in the way we were gaining recognition on the world platform dispelled any such irresponsible reporting. Also, the country had just about woken up to the Covid pandemic which was to be conquered in 21 days! “Theek, theek”, said a larger part of the nation, just like the courtiers of Raja Hirak. [Correct, correct.]

Then in October 2020 came the Global Hunger Index report.  

By then the pandemic had gripped us as it had the rest of the world. Our infrastructure, resources, and resolve had been stretched like never before. The Sushant Rajput suicide issue crossed its shelf life. Chinese incursions in Ladakh would take time to sort out. Atmanirbhar Bharat had been announced. So, the release of this report was in a lull period and therefore got covered much more than the government would have liked. After all, this was yet another “western” attempt at maligning our image on the world stage. 

The GHI is annually released by Welthungerhilfe and Concern Worldwide. The scores are an outcome of a formula that measures three aspects of insufficient calorific intake, child undernutrition, and child mortality using 4 component indicators – undernourishment, child wasting, child stunting, and child mortality – for children under 5 years of age. While child wasting is about being under-weight due to acute undernutrition, child stunting is about being under-height due to chronic undernutrition.

Out of 107 countries indexed, India stands 94th, lower than Bangladesh at 75 and Pakistan at 88. In the 2012 report, we ranked 102 out of 117 countries.

We are categorized in the “severe” category, with the highest prevalence of wasted children under 5 years in the world. Child wasting stands at 17.3% while child stunting stands at 37.4%. undernourishment stands at 14% and child mortality at 3.7%.

Just like in the World Happiness Report, what is of greater concern than the absolute ranking is the disturbing rate of progress over the last decade. The chart below, from the GHI 2020 report tells it all.

If we see the scores across the report years of 2000, 2006, 2012 and 2020, we see India making very little progress in the last 8 years, while countries like Ethiopia, Angola, Tanzania and Burkina have made significant progress to overtake us in 20 years. Even Afghanistan and Sierra Leone are showing massive improvement since 2006. In the last 8 years we have improved only by a measly 2.1 points. As Hirak Raja had said, “Onahaare nahi khed, beshi khele baare maed.” [Nothing wrong with starving, too much food makes one fat.]

Even though the last 5 years have not shown any notable moments of pride, where we stand today is an outcome of decades of sheer apathy and neglect. The present government has only been naïve in forcing a different narrative staring against harsh reality. Today, a significant portion of our population actually believes we have been making terrific progress and such western “libtard” reports should be squarely denounced. The previous governments were more adept at managing such open embarrassments, though equally to blame, if not more.

The least we can do as civil society is to have a serious debate on the state of hunger and happiness in the country. The reports, instead of being denounced or ignored, should be accepted in the right spirit and acted upon in the true spirit of positive governance. Farmer incomes have not doubled over the last six years. People across faiths and classes do not feel the safest in most community environments. We can have bigger temples of worship and taller statues. What we need is a better distribution of food grain and greater opportunities for employment and income security. The least we can do is not turn our faces and minds away from such deliberate acts of keeping the nation in perpetual poverty. We need judicial activism. We need social activism. We need active trade unionism. We need active debates on television, in newspapers, on radio, and across social media. The celebrity drugs can wait, the child deaths cannot. 

Towards the end of the movie, Udayan Pandit declares, “Dori dhore maaro taan, raja hobe khaan khaan.” [Pull the ropes and the king will fall to pieces.] Interestingly, a reformed Hirak Raja, aided by the citizens, pulls down his own mammoth statue. Peace finally prevails. Prosperity would surely follow!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Avik Chattopadhyay

The author is an auto industry consultant and cofounder of Expereal.

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